Halloween, the story of a hugely successful cult horror

Halloween, the film that brought director John Carpenter to a resounding success, is now over 40 years old. But it continues to be celebrated with sequels and remakes every new year. The film, which cost just $ 300,000 at the time, grossed over 80 million, and has become one of the most profitable films in the history of cinema in terms of cost and earnings. 

If we think for a moment In fact, even the huge takings of more recent independent horror films such as Paranormal Activity, which exceeded 200 million dollars, are not comparable to the 80 million of 1978. The film is made in a very simple way: few characters, one remote town in the American province, a serial killer who escapes from a psychiatric institution and an expressionless mask. 

Without directorial virtuosity, a few drops of blood, no special effects. John Carpenter’s cinema shows itself with absolute rigor. He does not have a large budget but only a directorial wisdom that increases the tension in an exemplary way. As he does so he describes the remote American province in an effective and simple way, the atmosphere that more than any other element makes us love this film. 

The setting of Halloween

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The setting is reminiscent of many other American films: provincial colleges and schools populated by restless young people, love affairs, friendships and betrayals of small seemingly quiet towns, where everyone dreams of transgression to normality. The killer Michael Myers, a young man with a banal mask on, is the absolute evil that looms over the small town. 

Halloween and the slasher genre

Halloween is not the first slasher made. The genre was invented by other previous films such as Silent Night Bloody Night, Chain Reaction, Blood Red Christmas. But he is the first to decree its enormous success. Slasher from English means “to wound with a sharp weapon”. It is a horror sub-genre with some recognizable elements, made for a young audience. There is usually a killer who kills his young victims on a university campus, in a campsite. The setting is very limited. 

The success of the slasher is due to two reasons: the setting in a small youthful world, the few characters that make it an easy-to-make, low-cost genre of film. Directors don’t even need famous actors to cast because audiences identify much more with young strangers. Slashers became the most exciting films to see in company at the cinema: there was not only the identification of the individual spectator but of the whole group of young people who went to the midnight screenings. 

Among the most significant slasher films that followed Halloween are Wes Craven’s Nightmare (1984) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). The controversial aspect of the genre is that while showing sex and rivers of blood, it is a type of film with a rather puritanical vision: it is always the most transgressive and veiled young people who are brutally killed by the killer first. Usually, as in Halloween, the protagonist is a somewhat bigoted and sexually repressed girl. The only one who in the end manages to put the killer in trouble. 

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The canons of the slasher genre

slasher

Halloween defines precisely certain canons of the slasher genre that will be taken up by dozens and dozens of subsequent films. The provincial town during a holiday, the fear that spreads when you learn of the presence of the killer, who has sex, takes drugs or gets drunk dies, the killer with a recognizable look. 

The traumatized citizen, the recurrence that remembers that trauma, the final girl, who has sex and / or who uses drugs or alcohol dies, the killer with a recognizable look. Halloween stands out from all other horror movies for the extreme simplicity with which it manages to envelop you in fear. It is a night like many others, in a town that seems the same as many others, and evil is not represented by who knows what inhuman monster, but by a man like many others who has lost the ability to discern between good and evil. 

Halloween, cult scenes

halloween-cult scenes

Carpenter’s ability to create tension makes the difference. The killer suddenly appears in the background of the shots, blurred, approaching while the characters are oblivious in the foreground. He walks like a robot, slowly, but despite his clumsiness it seems that nothing can stop him. He has a bestial pleasure in preferably killing his victims with his bare hands. 

One of the cult scenes of the film is the killing of a guy while he wanders from the bedroom to the kitchen to get a beer for the girlfriend he is having sex with. Michael Mayer “impales” him against a wall with a huge kitchen knife, causing him to remain suspended from the ground, and then in a full-length shot he pauses to look at the corpse suspended and squashed on the wall in a ghostly silence, slowly moving the head left and right and observing it like an entomologist. One of the shots of the film that remains in the imagination. 

Halloween, the idea that convinces no one

halloween-producer
Moustapha Akkad

The Halloween project was born from the independent producer Irwin Yablans who would like to make an indie low budget movie about a baby-sitter in danger on Halloween night. Using the name of the famous anniversary, which no one has ever done before, according to him will be a winning formula, but he does not have very clear ideas about the development of the plot and the style of the film. The winning intuition comes when he thinks of calling John Carpenter. Fresh from a moderate success with his second film District 13, John Carpenter is not very convinced of the ideas of the producer, but agrees to make the film as long as he has total creative freedom. 

The budget is only € 300,000 and actor Donald Pleasence agrees to work for a minimal fee but asks for a percentage of the proceeds in return. With an uncomplicated role and a decent acting performance, those few days of filming on John Carpenter’s set will guarantee the actor the most important income of his career. 

Carpenter and Yablans find the perfect investor in Iranian producer Moustapha Akkad, who at the time was spending three hundred thousand dollars on a single day of shooting in his productions. He is not very convinced of the project either but the budget is so paltry that he decides to finance the film. Carpenter writes the script with Debra Hill, with whom he began a collaboration from the previous film District 13, and will become his life partner for a time. 

The most disturbing part of the screenplay, however, Carpenter writes, visualizing in the writing the scariest things that he will later want to translate into images. The script that arrives on the producer’s table has nothing particularly original, Akkad continues not to be fully convinced of the project, he finds it rather banal. But John Carpenter’s talent is expressed above all in directing and transforms the film into something special. 

The style of Halloween

halloween

The film begins with a long 3-minute sequence shot inspired by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, using a rudimentary steadycam. It is a long subjective shot of the murderer with imperfect and discontinuous movements, almost like a shot made with a hand-held camera. The immediate identification of the public from the killer’s point of view is something very powerful. The look is that of the child Michael Myers the night he kills his sister and that will forever mark his life. 

We see him slowly approaching the house, spying morbidly at his sister and boyfriend who are talking and exchanging suggestive words before having sex. Then he watches the bedroom light go out, enters the house and arms himself with a large knife. When the boyfriend leaves the house he climbs the stairs, enters the girl’s room and brutally kills her with stabbings. 

Many years later Michael was locked up in a psychiatric hospital and managed to escape by stealing a police car. From then on he will begin to appear as a ghost in his hometown. For an hour and 10, however, nothing happens. The director creates only disturbing atmospheres by describing the relationships of the young protagonists and the context in which they live. The tension rises perfectly, gluing the viewer to the chair, until the final massacre. 

Halloween: the pre-production

halloween-mask

The name of the serial killer is inspired by that of the English distributor of District 13 that John Carpenter wanted to thank and to which he was infinitely grateful for having managed to make the film known in Europe through the London Film Festival . The Killer’s look is as simple as the texture: a mechanic suit and a $ 1 mask. After discarding a clown mask, the director chooses that of Captain Kirk from the Star Trek series. The mask, however, was modified, Carpenter wanted an expressionless, inhuman face, a face without eyes as if carved in a tombstone. In short, the right mask to represent absolute evil. Very little is said about Michael’s character and his actions are not justified in any way. Its ferocity and its inhuman killers remain an inexplicable mystery. 

Nick Castle, John Carpenter’s aspiring director and college friend, accidentally finds himself in the role of the dangerous serial killer. The director sees in him an ability to move and give strength to the character without ever being banal, qualities that other actors subjected to auditions do not have. But there are many during the shoot who take turns behind the mask of Michael Myers. Will Sandin when Michael is a child in the first sequence, Debra Hill gives him her hands when it comes to showing them with the bloody knife; a certain Tony Moran, a young man with the face of a good boy, gives him his face in the only shot without a mask: the director thought that the face of Nick Castle was not suitable. Also added is James Winburn, the stuntman in the action scenes, and collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, who edits the film and collaborates in many other ways.

Casting

halloween-backstage

The role of Doctor Loomis was offered to Peter Cushing, who had recently played Star Wars, but his agent turned him down. Christopher Lee was also consulted, but he too refused the proposal: he recognized years later that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. Donald Pleasence is therefore chosen as a fallback, an actor who has a filmography of over 100 films, who in a first meeting with John Carpenter is not at all impressed by the script. It was his daughter who convinced him to accept the role, a big fan of District 13 and Carpenter. The actor takes a $ 20,000 fee for 5 days of work. In fact, his scenes in the film last less than 20 minutes. His interpretation will prove important to the narrative universe of the film and his character will return in another 4 chapters of the saga.

The protagonist is Laurie Strode, the shy and a little bigoted girl, unlucky and insecure, who will reveal instead a strength of character and an ability to fight the monster. After attempting to cast Anne Lockhart in the role, the character is assigned to Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. At the time, the young actress was working on a Universal television series but had never made a film for the big screen. She is very natural at the audition and is hired for 8 thousand dollars. Carpenter, also very attentive to the marketing aspects of the film, thinks that a daughter of popular characters will help to advertise the film.

Filming

halloween-set

Filming for Halloween –  only lasted 20 days, in the spring of 1978. The town of Haddonfield, Illinois, is actually a location created between Pasadena and Hollywood. The director is careful to exclude all those details that can make one think of the warm California climate and to fill the shots with dry leaves blown by the autumn wind. A small production staff in which everyone covered more than one role. After the film, the producer started looking for a distributor. The larger studios seemed to have no interest.

Carpenter and the producers printed 400 copies and began a US tour on October 25, taking the film to various locations across the country. Initially the film did not have a simultaneous release of all copies and circulated one copy at a time, following the tour. But in a short time the film enjoyed great success with audiences and critics, also thanks to screenings at the San Diego Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival. After seeing in disbelief the success of the film is having grossed significant amounts of money, Mustafa Akkad never stops thinking about the fixed idea of ​​producing you know that of Halloween. 

The Halloween Saga

Many producers smell the money including Dino De Laurentiis and approach the sequel project. John Carpenter and Debra Hill only wrote the screenplay and Rick Rosenthal was directed the sequel Halloween II was filmed in 1981. It is the best sequel of the saga and the one that collects the most money after the first chapter. 

Already from the third of whose papers on the ground I agree once again to write the script the decline begins. This is Halloween 3 Season Of The Witch, directed by Carpenter’s friend Tommy Lee Jones. But it is film is a flop. The producers did not suspect that audiences weren’t interested in the protagonists struggling for survival but wanted to see Michael Myers, who instead is excluded from the story. 

John Carpenter and Halloween

halloween-carpenter

At this point John Carpenter understands that it is useless to continue to make new chapters of the Saga and abandons subsequent projects. But the Iranian producer Mustafa Akkad is now unstoppable and continues to squeeze the icon of the most famous serial killer in the history of cinema to the last dollar, producing another 5 chapters to be followed by various reboots and remakes, also produced by Miramax and Bloom. House. 

The saga now has 11 chapters and many fans around the world. But none of the following films managed to imitate the first, the , the only one entrusted to the direction of John Carpenter, who managed to create with very few means a horror icon that conquered the mass audience. The only film in the saga to have an author’s vision and to propose directing and visual solutions that in 1978 were totally original. 

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